Album Review: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis – CARNAGE

[Goliath Enterprises; 2021]

Under an abstract lens, Nick Cave is an auteur. From start to finish, he tampers with each element that goes into any project with his name on it. His records with the Bad Seeds range from slimy post-punk to ethereal ambience, and every part is executed precisely the way Cave wants, based on his vision. With his latest, Carnage, he joins with frequent soundtrack collaborator and Bad Seed Warren Ellis for their first non-soundtrack project – but the sequencing, and the cinematic nature of Carnage is purposeful, especially in its obscurity.

In true cinematic form, “Hand of God” opens Carnage with a singular Cave verse, like he’s Henry Hill or Tyler Durden: “There are some people trying to find out who / There are some people trying to find out why,” he says, and continues with “There are some people aren’t trying to find anything / But that kingdom in the sky,” all before the song begins to really open up. Taking aim at the deity, he pushes further and further into allegory – the river and religion are one and the same here, it seems, all cascading over the narrator. Cave’s always stabbing religion with his baritone dagger, sometimes more precisely, some time’s less obviously – nevertheless, he is disinterested in the cult status of religion, and delivers keen observations here on how it consumes us but leaves us hanging, ultimately, in the face of drastic currents.

Carnage is full of these attacks on the architecture of human faith. Cave has never shied away from his opinions on the topic – he wrote an entire album mocking it in Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, for crying out loud – but the difference on Carnage is how he’s hitting it from different angles.

“Old Time” finds someone, the narrator or Cave, leaving a relationship again. At this point, it’s hard to fathom Cave being devout in any way, but the words here indicate a departure from something overwhelmingly influential, that at one point could be a romance of sorts, but overall feels much larger. We have these tiffs with religion, we leave it, we come back. We use it when it’s relevant to our feelings; we thank God when things are going great for us and condemn him when things go wrong. “By the side of the road is a thing with horns / Steps back into the trees / And a child is born / Upon the trembling Earth,” he sings. These are hymns, it appears, filled with allusions to otherworldly audiences.

“Old Time” also reintroduces something we haven’t heard on a Nick Cave record in quite some time – a piercingly crunchy riff, curtesy, one would think, of Warren Ellis. He is a more-than-proficient multi-instrumentalist, which makes his contribution to Carnage endless. He pulls strings into the fold on “Old Time” too, without hesitation, and makes it fit tightly in between Cave’s hymnal. There aren’t any detailed credits out there, it seems that Ellis and Cave are responsible for all of it, and given that Cave is doing the singing, it seems Ellis lands a hefty footprint on Carnage.

He is probably the most notable Bad Seed due to his work on soundtracks and film scores. A majority of these have been for films about isolation in some form – The Road, The Proposition – or on survival – Hell or High Water, Wind River. These concepts also influence Carnage’s darker underbelly, which Ellis evokes. His gift of spiritual emulation is let loose on “Hand of God”, where he drags us to that same river of religion by providing a consistent heartbeat thump accompanied by searing violin.

The visual interpretations by Cave and the sonic cathedrals orchestrated by Ellis go all over the place on Carnage. The title track is a blissfully synthy redirection that takes us into a comfortable space where Cave is reading Flannery O’Connor on the balcony as the rain comes. So much of what Cave sings these days can be traced to his tragically deceased son, and “Carnage” would have fit somewhere on the death-reckoning Ghosteen, but it is a profound inclusion here. It’s simply a gorgeous track on which Cave showcases some of his softer tones – “This song is a rain cloud / That keeps circling overhead,” he sings, “And it’s only love / With a little bit of rain.” He coos and oohs, with angels chanting in the background. The way Cave has graduated from the sinister days of Murder Ballads into this surrealistic prophet has been so organic but unpredictable; even at the turn of the century no one could have foreseen it.

Smack in the middle comes “White Elephant”, undoubtedly the most resonant track on Carnage due to its frighteningly aggressive lyrics. Just like its subject matter, “White Elephant” follows its prey closely, waiting to pounce by way of Ellis’ slow-burning samples that seem to circle Cave’s words. “A protestor kneels on the neck of a statue / The statue says ‘I can’t  breathe’ / The protestor says ‘now you know how it feels’ / And kicks it into the sea,” is one of Cave’s more direct statements here. While he isn’t the type to conceal his opinions, the nature of the lyrics on “White Elephant” sting so much more than usual given the current political climate. The vibes of “Stagger Lee” and other Murder Ballads are here thanks to the repeated refrain “I’ll shoot you in the fucking face”, which Cave wants burned into your skull. “White Elephant” then cuts itself in half and does the one-eighty trick from its subtle overture and crescendos into a glam-rock finale via Ziggy Stardust’d pop.

“Albuquerque” tackles the worldwide pandemic, which lead to this album’s creation. Its lighter tone resembles that of Ghosteen, but this doesn’t fit in that conversation. Instead, “Albuquerque” balances on this isolation that everyone felt, and while it doesn’t near any profound statements like the track before it, it still manages to add a delightfully somber retrospective on the year that was 2020 – as seen through the eyes of one of music’s most iconic voices.

What may seem like a pitstop on Carnage is actually the pivot point, as “Albuquerque” moves the album in a slightly different direction while still holding onto the core. The distances felt on “Albuquerque” segue right into “Lavender Fields”, and he reprises the first words of Carnage: “We don’t ask who / We don’t ask why / There is a kingdom in the sky,” seemingly to reiterate the constant growing of hysteria, all while people are dying. The two songs act as a tandem piece that shows the two sides of a situation, in Cave’s abstractions and Ellis’ glimmering instrumentals.

“Shattered Ground” personifies the moon as a woman with thoughts and feelings, and while this could be about climate change, the words Cave speaks here hint at something more personal. Perhaps it’s someone far away, maybe it’s the same woman from “Old Time” who returns for the same fix only to be burned repeatedly. Regardless, Cave struggles to let go of this ideal: “I’ll be all alone when you’re gone / I will not make a single sound.” This all comes crashing down on the shattered ground, and then it’s over. We can posit as much as we want, but in the end Cave knows what this is about and he’s not sharing it like the classicist he is.

Carnage is the bedroom record that we never expected from Cave. He and Warren Ellis have assembled a minimal record that still sounds like a full Bad Seeds album. It’s a testament to both of their abilities that at this juncture in their careers these two can still write powerful music.

But what is Carnage actually about? No one’s quite sure. It’s intentionally obtuse, a familiar tactic from Cave. One thing is for sure though, Carnage scratches an itch for Bad Seeds and Grinderman fans who have longed for the acidic side of Cave’s antagonizing tongue. At only eight cuts and barely 40 minutes, Carnage is a welcome return to the lean songwriting we haven’t seen from him since 2013’s Push the Sky Away, the album that preceded the untimely passing of his son Arthur in 2015. Since then, Cave’s secluded his directness, and now litters his projects with misdirection and contradictions, forcing the listener to extract their own feelings.

Despite the ambiguity none of Carnage is dispensable, it all matters. Every synth Ellis stretches, every word Cave mutters, it all has meaning. On the closing “Balcony Man”, we find our protagonist lifting himself up, toes off that balcony, to some higher plain of existence perhaps. “This morning is amazing and so are you,” he repeats, but he doesn’t depart from this world without one last Cave-ism: “You are languid and lovely and lazy / And what doesn’t kill you makes you crazier.” Carnage is one of Cave’s most deliberately beguiling albums. He proposes that we relinquish any expectations for it. For an album called Carnage, on the surface it appears to have none, but the inner turmoil of Nick Cave’s psyche is full of it. He fantasizes about long lost loves, but also about shooting you in the fucking face, and it’s this toying with our emotions makes Carnage one of Cave’s most maddeningly beautiful records.